After exploring the magnificent Angkor Wat, our driver took us to the ruins of Angkor Thom, or “great city”. The last capital of the Khmer empire, this royal palace and city was also built in a series of squares, with the Bayon temple at its center, Like Angkor Wat, this symbolized the universe with the center temple symbolizing Mt. Meru. The causeway across the moat is passable by car, and the bridge is decorated with gods on one side and demons on the other, both guarding the entrance to the city. The entry gates are 75 feet tall, with faces on top facing in each of the cardinal directions, perhaps symbolizing the gods on top of Mt. Meru. Our driver stopped and snapped some pictures for us with the gates. There was a line of cars congregated near the side of the road. When we approached, we saw a whole tree full of monkeys! We slowed down and made sure the boys saw the monkeys before we continued on.
Our driver dropped us off in front of the closest temple to the entrance, Bayon temple and went to get some lunch. We were super excited to explore this area, but Landon wanted to check out the nearby large Buddha first. When we approached the temple, the guards wanted to see our tickets again. The thing was, our tickets were in the car with our driver! They were soaked in the rain at Angkor Wat so I had placed them flat in the car to dry. Austin was pretty frustrated with the guards for not letting us in, and agreed to hang out with the boys until I came back with the tickets. I ended up running around the whole temple of Bayon and then down the main road for quite a ways before finding our driver. Fortunately, he gave me a ride back to the entrance before returning to his lunch.
I guess now is a good time as any to make a plug for a driver. Unless going with an organized tour of some kind, hiring a car or tuk-tuk to ride around the ruins is an absolute necessity. They are just too far apart to hike between them. I’m not sure why, but almost all of the drivers have white Lexus SUVs. So finding our driver out of the many that were there was a little bit of a process! Fortunately, I knew he had gone to lunch, so I just checked all the lunch tents until I found him.
With our tickets in hand, we were able to explore Bayon. This temple did not have roped off areas, so we were able to climb and explore at our own place and basically wherever we wanted. This temple is known for its stone faces carved into the towers. They are bodhisattvas and are said to closely resemble the king that ruled when the temple was completed. Naturally, the faces pointing in all directions symbolize the omnipresence of the king. It was a little eery to walk around with all the faces around. From afar, this temple looked like a giant dribble sand castle and looked more like ruins than Angkor Wat. The bas reliefs here also told stories from Hinduism, but there were also Buddhas in some of the chambers and alcoves. Technically, it is a Buddhist temple with Hindu themes. The structure was somewhat similar to Angkor Wat with two lower levels with bas reliefs carved into the stone throughout, but the third level was different. This level included the faces, towers, and a circular layout. The carved Asparas or angels looked a little different at this temple, and an intricately carved frame adorned the stone around them. This temple was smaller than Angkor Wat, so we were able to hike around and enjoy it in less time.
Fellow travelers, have you ever experienced museum fatigue? Where you go to Europe or something and go to so many museums everything starts looking the same? Well, after two large ruins, we were experiencing some ruins fatigue. We were so grateful to be there and see these beautiful and magnificent structures, but carrying a kid and cajoling another kid through ruins gets tiring! However, since we came to Siem Reap and paid for the airfare and expensive visa specifically to see these ruins, we soldiered on.
Landon was really fascinated with these statues of a snake with seven(or more) heads. In Cambodian legend, this snake represents the seven races of naga, a reptilian race that lived in the Pacific Ocean until a naga princess marred am Indian prnce ad was given Cambodia as a dowry. It also represents the seven colors of the rainbow and immortality, infinity, and limitlessness.
Looking in more details at the construction of these towers, it’s amazing to see that these small(ish) stone blocks were pieced together and cut to fit perfectly to make these giant structures! I’m not sure if the sculptures were carved before or after they were placed, but either way it’s really neat. Like always, we would have loved to linger and explore every detail of Bayon, but the boys were tired, hot, hungry and restless so we continued on to the temple right next door- Baphuon. I did not realize beforehand that this temple is only open to those 12 and up, so we walked all the way to entrance down a long causeway, only to find out that the boys could not go. Austin graciously volunteered to wait with the boys nearby and take a brief snack, water, and sitting break.
Baphuon was built like a pyramid with external walkways and VERY steep staircases. When we approached, the guards would not let our children in (children 12 and under not allowed), So, Austin stayed with the boys and rested while I climbed up to take photos. The view from the top was amazing of the ruins and surrounding green fields. When I ascended and descended the staircases, I realized why kids were not allowed and it was purely a safety issue! I was afraid of toppling down the staircase myself! Baphuon was built in the 11th century A.D. as a temple mountain and state temple of one of the rulers. Unfortunately, their names are so long and make no sense so I don’t re-type them. It was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Restoration efforts on this temple have been interrupted many times, and I think the current strategy is to make it relatively safe and leave it alone.
Austin and Landon learned how they constructed the temples by boring holes in the rock to move them using levers and sticks. Each stone was cut to fit without mortar, part of the reason they have stood the test of time for so long. As I ascended the temple mountain, I realized that there were layers just like the other temples we had visited, albeit in this temple the layers were oriented more vertically- ascending the structure at a faster pace vs. over a long area of land.
I was not planning on staying so long at Baphuon temple, but there was a specific entry and exit pattern so I had to walk through the whole temple to make it back to my boys. We met our driver and drove slowly by the Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King, stopping to take a few photos, before moving on.
When trying to plan a visit to Angkor Wat, the guidebooks have so much to say and it makes it seem like all of the temples are super far apart and it would take days to fully enjoy them. Although Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are far from each other, we walked within Angkor Thom comfortably from Bayon to Baphuon to the Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King without any issues. With a five-year-old. It’s possible! The Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of Leper King form a 500m long terrace that faces the parade grounds. Angkor Thom was the royal city, and the Terrace of Elephants was where the king would sit to watch his army coming back from battle, festivals and sport events, as well as a public meeting place where he would sit to hear grievances from his subjects. Its name comes from the amazing elephant sculptures with trunks acting as pillars going into the ground.
The Terrace of the Leper King is so named because of a statue found on the terrace, believed to be either King Yasovarman I, who had leprosy, or Yama, the god of death. It is thought to be another representation of Mt. Meru, the center of the universe in Hindu and Buddhist traditions. There are demons, heavenly beings, and naga snakes carved into the terrace. Both terraces were built in the late 12th century A.D.
Since we bought the one day pass and only had two days in Siem Reap, we did not have time to stop and admire all of the ruins in Angkor Thom. A more serious history student, or those who don’t have young children should consider the 3-day pass in order to really enjoy each area of ruins to the fullest. We were on the highlight tour, though, and so we left Angkor Thom for our last ruins of the day, the jungle temple, Ta Prohm!